Cultural Landscape of Bali Province, Indonesia
Along the beaches of Bali you’ll find the rows of hotels, the streets of shops, the clusters of restaurants, the honking taxis, the bars, the markets, that all tell the story of tourism on the island. About 30 per cent of Balinese citizens work in tourism and the industry contributes a third of the island’s income.
But go inland slightly, towards the centre of Bali, into the hills and away from the crowded cities and towns, and you’ll find the other economic workhouse of the region – agriculture.
Rice farming has a long history in Bali and it’s more than just a business or a profession. Rice farming is deeply entwined with the local culture, religion and environment. It’s an important relationship that has existed for centuries and defines much of the traditional life on the island. In fact, the relationship and the physical landscapes that have been created because of it have recently been recognised and protected by UNESCO.
I’ve decided I want to better understand this side of Balinese life and the guys at Project Kalpa have offered to show me around. They’ve been working on promoting the cultural heritage of the rice farms and helping locals preserve their agricultural lives.
The Subak Museum
Our first stop is the Subak Museum. At this point I don’t really know what a ’subak’ is – but it’s the foundation of this whole system and important to understand.
A subak is essentially a collective of farmers who all share the same water source (a dam or a canal, for instance). There are about 1200 subaks in Bali and, within each, the members work together to distribute the water fairly so nobody is disadvantaged, even if they’re the furthest down the stream. They also collectively organise the many religious ceremonies and rituals that are required.
Subaks have existed for centuries and they’ve always had a political role within rice farming – they elect members to the leadership and they vote on how communal funds should be spent. They also have a social role because they are the place disputes can be settled, if a farmer thinks he deserves more water, for instance. And they are especially important for the fulfilment of the required religious duties.
Religion has always been a crucial part of rice farming in Bali. The locals believe that the fate of their crops are intimately intertwined with the moods of the gods. This is because they consider the land to be owned by deities and they need to ask permission to use it. To not do this properly brings retribution in the form of pests, diseases, bad weather and natural disasters.
Pura Luhur Batukaru
I find the apex of this faith at one of the island’s water temples, called Pura Luhur Batukaru. These complexes are not called water temples because they are somehow made with water (I am slightly disappointed to find out). They get their name because they are the blessed spot where water will flow out to all the farms in the catchment.
A large stone entrance welcomes me to Pura Luhur Batukaru. Stepping inside, it’s serene. I splash myself with water to be cleansed. Everything here is about the liquid life-bringer.
Throughout the complex are different temple structures – small shrines, stone statues, wooden pagodas. But down a large step of stairs is the most unassuming but the most important part. It’s a square dam with a small shrine in the middle. This is where the water flows through, from the mountain behind us to the rice paddies below. This is what the Balinese have, in a sense, prayed to for centuries.
Jatiluwih Rice Terraces
There are 20 subaks in Bali that have been protected by the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The largest of them is Jatiluwih, which has 562 members (if you’re curious, the smallest is Wongaya Betan with 90 members). As it turns out, Jatiluwih is also one of the most picturesque and there are quite a few tourists taking photos when I arrive.
This is the heart of the subak system, where everything comes together. Water flows along small canals, servicing each paddy. I see the simple but ingenious system they have to distribute the water – a narrow channel off the main waterway with a barrier that has a small section cut out of it. The size of this cutout section is what is decided by the subak (and is traditionally measured in fingers).
There are sub-subaks and each of them has a small temple where some of the religious rituals can be done on behalf of a group of farmers. Then most of the farmers will have their own individual shrines where they will do some of the offerings on their own. There are dozens of events that are supposed to happen during the year so it makes sense to do a lot of them as a group to save time and money.
Without even understanding this, though, you can appreciate the stunning views across the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. The rolling green with the steps between the paddies, the lines marking their borders, the little huts every so often and the simple stone temples in their corners. There’s a blending of the human and the natural.
In fact, that philosophy guides everything to do with the subaks and the agriculture in Bali. The Balinese practice something called Tri Hita Karana, an ideology from the 12th century which literally means three causes of goodness. It is all about creating and respecting a harmony between humans and the spiritual realm, between humans and nature, and between each human.
Pura Tirta Empul
On the way back, we stop at Pura Tirta Empul, another water temple close to Ubud. Here you see how the traditional has blended with tourism – partly because of its proximity to a popular destination for foreigners and partly because of how special it is.
At Pura Tirta Empul, it is customary for local worshippers to get into a large pool of water and walk past a row of fountains, paying respect to the gods that each of them represents. I don’t get in myself but I notice a lot of foreign tourists in there. They are generally behaving respectfully (if you don’t count filming with GoPros as disrespectful) while I’m there, but I can easily imagine times when that’s not the case, with some young backpackers seeing the fun side without understanding the culture.
It’s a bit of a symbol of what is happening on the island generally. Although there’s almost a thousands years of history in the subak system, it is now under threat and risks disappearing in the next generation or so.
Ultimately the threat is all about economics and it’s all because of tourism. For young Balinese, it’s much more profitable to get a job in the tourism industry than to stay on the land and follow in their parents’ footsteps, farming the rice paddies. Also, the development on the island for tourists is pushing up the value of the land everywhere, which increases taxes and makes farming less profitable. And water availability is also becoming a problem as more tourists means more demands for the important resource.
The declaration of a World Heritage Site provides a lot of protections to the rice farms, lakes and temples that are included in the listing – but they are mainly physical protections. What is harder to protect is culture when maintaining that culture is no longer enjoyable or financially sustainable.
I’m not sure what the solution is – if there is one. It would be very sad, though, if a millennium of heritage and culture was to disappear within a generation or two because of the island’s economic progress. I don’t normally say this – but perhaps more tourism to these subaks would actually be a good thing. At least it would bring a greater awareness and hopefully a wider appreciation of how special they are would bring some benefits.